Once there was a mother and her two children. The three of them lived in a cottage on the edge of a wood. You know the one: trees upon trees teeming with magic and danger. The children, unafraid, ran in the leaves without their mother, found a lost boy without a mother, a lost boy with bark for skin and acorns for eyes. The children fell in love with the lost boy, the way only children can. And they took him by the hand, and ran.
Once there was a mother, a single mother of two young girls. She wanted nothing more than to be the mother hen her own mother was for her — wings spread, warm protection from the elements. But her mother had a partner, and she had no one. Just her girls, and a lonely cottage on the edge of a wood. You know the one.
The mother knew too. Everyone knew, and tales of the magicked, darkened wood traveled far. The mother tried to tell them to her girls, her two young girls, but children can be fickle creatures. Fidgety and unaware of their own fragility. She tried, oh she tried, but her tired voice and body could only do as much as it could do. And when she had her back turned, her two young girls entered the wood.
Once there was a man, who refused to be called father. He tried, he said, he tried, but children were not what he agreed to. This marriage was supposed to equate to more: more status, more money, more support for him. He did not know that also meant more bodies to clothe, more mouths to feed, so much more that anything he gained he lost immediately. Tattered dress. Cold nights. Empty bellies.
The man felt cheated and took it out on his new, young family by planning to leave them. He sold their land and moved them into a small cottage on the edge of a wood. You know the one. In the middle of the night, the man pocketed the money and walked away through the cover of the trees. He was never seen again.
Once there was a wood. You know the one. Trees as far as the eye can see, a green so lush it could only be magic. The wood existed for years upon years, hundreds of years, and grew with each turn of the earth. It mirrored the growth of the world around it: larger, denser. Darker. Oh the stories those leaves could tell, stories of monstrous existence, if only you cared to listen.
Once there was a mother, though not the one you’d recognize. She never asked to be a parent, never asked to be left in a minuscule cottage on the edge of a wood. You know the one. As if she didn’t have plans of her own, as if the man who abandoned her was the only one disappointed by the outcome of their marriage.
The children were a handful, one for each of the mother’s hands which she often had occupied with other things. Cooking, cleaning, working. Every day a cycle she couldn’t break out of, and all she wanted was just one day of rest. Some quiet. Some peace.
If she were to be honest, when her children disappeared into the wood, she felt relief.
Once there were two children. In some tales, they’re both girls. Others, ungendered. Most often they’re siblings, though the age difference ranges from mere seconds to years, but sometimes they’re unrelated — just two young kids on a search. Looking to fill a lack in their lives, a void no one their age should have to attempt to fill. Looking for warmth, sustenance. A caring heart. A guilt-free existence.
In all the stories, the children entered the wood. You know the one. With no love at home, they hoped to find it amongst the trees. So when they met that lost boy, with bark for skin and acorns for eyes, who could blame them for feeling found? Truly, how else was their story to end, except for them to take his hand and run into the wood.
Once there was a boy, a boy of sticks and leaves, bark and acorns. The boy had no age nor memory of a childhood, his only knowledge the wood. You know the one. His family was amongst the trees, in the cool shade of their leaves and the comforting embrace of their branches. He had known no other way of life, and he was happy.
Once, he came across two children wandering in his home, lost. He could see the sadness in their eyes, permanently scarred in the corners of their face. Hungry, he fed them. Cold, he clothed them. Lonely, he loved them. He led them deep into the wood, where it was safe and warm. They became like him: skin tough as bark, eyes brown as acorns.
And they were happy.
Jordan E. McNeil writes fairytales, rages at videogames, and takes selfies with goats. Her work can be found (or is forthcoming) at Jenny Magazine, Willow: Women in Lit Lifting Other Women, Curating Alexandria, and Arsenika. She can be found on Twitter, @Je_McNeil.